༺ Pilgrimage ༻

Ayu Lhamo

John’s friend Ngawang had been our host in the village of Sabu, just outside of Leh. Also staying there was Dave who was doing research for a PHD on “Indigenous Knowledge Practices”. We had become close during long conversations about “life, the universe and everything”. We talked about the Dharma most of the time. It was a real tonic for me to have a chum to talk to. I kept returning after each of my little trips and we could convene and talk them over. Ngawang one day invites us to watch a DVD he has. It is about “Ayu Lhamo” and is called something like “Demons and Sorcerers”. In the video there are a few really scary scenes. Live footage of a meeting with the great woman who is supposed to be visited by the “Lha” or spirits of place. She shrieks, jumping up and brandishing a sword, running towards the cameraman who flees. She is famously fierce. She lives in a village near Leh called “Ayu”.

A plan is hatched to visit her the next day. Our chum Gyatso (“ocean”) wants to help with the translation. It is a long walk over scrubby desert and when we locate the little house it appears to be all locked up. We walk around it until we find another door which opens to our knocking. There are loads of people inside an ancient kitchen. The ceiling is very low. There are too many people to really see what is going on. I hand some money over to buy a “khatag” scarf, the lovely white silk scarves that are presented as formal presents.

There is a group of Russians who all seem to be wearing white. One of them is in front of Ayu Lamo asking her “how many grandchildren will I have?” She gets really cross and raises her voice. She is apparently speaking in Tibetan rather than Ladakhi. The translator reports that she has said “it is impossible to say”. With an imperious wave of her hand she dismisses him, looking daggers at him. He retreats looking pale and the whole group of them are bustled out by Ayu Lhamo’s helpers. The atmosphere is highly charged.

Someone pokes me on the knee and I look up noticing that she is looking right at me and beckoning. I go up and offer the khatag and bow. She is wearing a kind of cloth crown and a scarf over the bottom half of her face. She is very thin, very old and has the presence of an actual deity! I’m awestruck. She glances at me in the eye for the briefest of moments and then talks in Tibetan for quite a while. This is translated into Ladakhi by her guy. Gyatso translates the Ladakhi into English for me. “You meditate a lot. You should keep your mind still and not dwell on problems. You should find a Rimpoche who can help you find your way.” She asks me what my trouble is and I tell her a bit about a serious fall I had, the sickness and weakness that has followed it, my wife having an affair and leaving me and the terrible loneliness that has come with it. She asks where I am going next and I tell her of my plan to visit Gotsang, a famous meditator stayed there in the distant past, it appears in John’s book. She says I should ask for a “khuntup” when I get there. I have no idea what that means. She dismisses me and I go back to my place feeling all emotional. No releases or resolutions.

After seeing what seems like hundreds of various types of health care professionals I was kind of hoping for some shamanic magic of the real kind. I had worked for a circus years before, and had suffered a fall when a stunt went wrong during a rehearsal. There had been a very intense near death, out-of-body experience which had eventually led to a diagnosis of chronic, acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The consultant who diagnosed me had been Terry Waite’s doctor.

After the shaman talked to a few more people I was surprised to be beckoned up for a second time. She wanted me to describe the fall experience to her. After I finished telling the tale she takes her sword out of a brazier of burning coals, sticks her tongue out, leaning over towards me, eyes blazing. She puts the flat of the sword on her tongue. There are sizzles and steamings. She blows on my face. I’m sent away again.

Sitting back in my place once again I feel even more emotional, bits of confused, traumatised memories start to emerge and I’m not sure where I am. A third time I’m called forward after she’s seen more of the villagers. This is where my memory is a bit mixed up. She pulled the glowing coals over and suddenly pushed my face into the smoke, throwing juniper on to make clouds of fragrance. Holding my neck very firmly she wouldn’t allow me to escape the choking fumes. It was hot too. She takes a hand bell in one hand and a “phurba” or “ghost dagger” in the other – both formal Tibetan Buddhist sacred items. Ringing the bell close to my ear, frequently clonking me on the side of the head, she chants and jabs me everywhere with the three sided phurba. It’s painful and very, very weird. As this is going on, and it goes on for what seems like ages, I start to have vivid memories of the accident. Trauma responses take over and I don’t really know where I am. Images of fire, dragons, immensities of darkness pulling me into the endless abyss.

Eventually she lets my face up away from the smoke, she ties special threads around my fingers, gives me a specially knotted khatag scarf, gives me sacred rice and sacred Tibetan medicines. She asks me to sit beside her and after I move she sees to more villagers. I don’t take it in as it takes ages to normalise from the intensity. When she has seen everyone including my chums, she leans forward, right down to the ground and makes a lot of weird noises and clicks and then BAM! suddenly the “lha” have left and she is once again a ninety year old Ladakhi grandma.

Her relatives and helpers make tea and invite us to stay. I start to ask some questions but she says that she can never remember anything that happens when she is in the “trance” or whatever the hell has just happened! Eventually we leave, stumbling out into the fierce Himalayan afternoon, all jazzed up. Dave tells me that when I was in my own kind of trance I was crying really hard. He said that he looked around and saw that everyone in the room, including himself, was crying too, everyone except Ayu Lhamo!

I felt like I had truly been met by “the deity”, that the enormity of the trauma had been taken really seriously by someone qualified enough to have a meaningful response. For the fourteen years since the accident I had felt a powerful need to try and tell the story, always hoping that it would somehow help me leave it behind. After meeting the shaman, that need lessened a good deal.

“Ayu Llamo”